A Petrol Scented Spring

The night of the storm, a wardress comes to his door just as he’s sitting down to the cold tongue supper his housekeeper has left for him. It’s Thompson, one of the relief staff transferred from Dundee Gaol. Prisoner Scott is very bad, sir. Talking queerly. He must come quickly. He leaves the meal on the table, quits the house in his shirtsleeves. The air is dense with electricity, thickly humid, the sky like a sheet of lead. And now, in a flash, magnesium white. Thunder grates above him as he crosses the prison yard. The first fat drops of rain spatter his white shirt. He takes the stone stairs two at a time, bringing the smell of outdoors in with him, the unearthed charge. She looks up from the bed and the current jumps between them. He wants the wardresses out. Impossible. There would have to be a reason, and even he does not know why. But they seem to catch his mood, backing away from the bed.
            ‘What’s the matter?’ He asks the prisoner, but it is Cruikshank, the other wardress, who answers.
            ‘She says she’s in pain, sir.’
            In a listless voice, as if speaking of someone she hardly knows, Prisoner Scott says, ‘My chest.’
            Cruikshank says, ‘Her heart, sir.’
            He ignores her, addressing the prisoner, ‘Palpitations?’
            She nods.
            He sits on the side of the mattress, touching the back of his hand to her brow. Her skin is sweaty, but not fevered, her pulse uncharacteristically faint. The energy kindled by that sprint up the stairs still fizzes in his chest. He takes out his stethoscope. Thompson moves to help him but he waves her away and unfastens the nightdress himself. There is no question of indelicacy, a doctor’s hands are God’s instruments, yet some breach is involved in this act of undressing. A compromising of professional detachment.
            As ever, the hospital is several degrees cooler than the air outside. Gooseflesh rises under his damp shirtsleeves. He raises the stethoscope pad to his mouth and breathes on it, as he was taught to do at medical school, not a courtesy he observes habitually. The metal kisses her skin.
            The wardresses open the casement window. The warm air smells of wet earth. Lightning flashes, followed by an almighty clap of thunder. The prisoner’s face pales. Fasting purifies the complexion, and artificial feeding has not changed the blemishless gleam of her skin. How lovely she is, stretched out on the bed like this, her body soft and unresisting. He cannot allow himself to think this, not here, not now. But a shiver passes through him.
            She says, ‘Does this gaol have a lightning conductor?’
            ‘I expect so.’ His eyes follow the stethoscope’s progress over her breast. ‘Are you afraid of the storm?’
            ‘I’m praying for it to strike me dead.’
            One of the wardresses tuts.
            ‘Come now,’ he says in a bluff voice, ‘the pain’s not that bad.’
            She turns her face away from him. At temple and nape, her hair is damp. His tongue prickles with the taste of salt.
            The stethoscope tells him nothing new. And yet he doesn’t like this listlessness. He has seen patients let go of life, their heartbeat weakening, their lungs refusing air. He has closed their eyes and signed the death certificate with no medical diagnosis, no reason but despair.
            She asks, ‘How long have I been here?’
            ‘Almost two weeks.’
            The eyelid visible to him flutters. ‘Is that all?’
            ‘Thirteen days.’
            A memory surprises him, surfacing from a quarter-century ago. His sister Jane playing keek-a-boo. The silky-gingery back of her head. She is only just walking. Tottering, really. She will drown in the cattle trough before she is old enough to talk.
            ‘Sister, let me see your face…’
            He starts. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the wardresses’ hands touch. He hates their superstition as he hated his mother’s, feeling its tug within him. The prisoner’s eyes stare up through the ceiling.
            ‘…I go home. Past the cracked tile in the close mouth. Up the stairs. Through the storm doors—’ Her voice drops to a whisper. ‘—There she is, at the window. But she will not turn round.’
            How to cut a path through the thicket of another’s mind without destroying what we would reach? Yet to enter the tangle unarmed, ducking and twisting through the thorns, is to risk being lost forever.
            He asks Thompson if Prisoner Scott is often like this.
            ‘It’s the loneliness, sir. A night-time thing. It comes and goes.’
            ‘With the palpitations?’
            They all hear the urgency in his voice.
            The wardress shrugs. He asks the patient. ‘Have you pain elsewhere?’
            Prisoner Scott’s eyes roll towards his, then away. When Dunlop came she was an Amazon. He wants to shock her into life, put the spark of fury back in her voice, but to speak harshly to her would be like kicking a dead thing. At once monstrously cruel, and useless.
            ‘How am I to help you if you won’t tell me?’
            At last she turns her gaze on him. ‘There is nothing you can do for me.’
            He touches her cheek. ‘Never say that.’
            The wardresses are watching.
            The lightning comes again, the thunder immediately after. She moans.
            He has never spoken her name before.
            A sudden wind drives a volley of rain against the window. Her eyes close. She is beaten. What else has he striven for? And he can’t bear it.

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